When I signed up for The Moroccan experience, I was unaware of the treat I was in for – the holiday left me with indelible impressions. A country of many contrasts – from the crowded cities to the rural villages, from ancient ways of living to dealing with the influence of modernity – the pace of life was refreshing to witness; Moroccans are proud of their country and their work, and they want tourists to enjoy their visit.
Day One -Asni to Tassa Ouirgane – a 14 km hike.
The weather forecast for Marrakech was 37c – hiking conditions from Asni were a bit better due to the altitude difference but at 34c, we were prepared with extra water, hats and magical cooling neck scarves (infused with crystals that hold water) for extra protection. I was immediately struck by the beautifully-sculpted red terrain, slivered with chert or shale that reminded me of hiking in Sedona, Arizona. Our hike, led by a local guide, afforded us beautiful views of Jbel Toubkal, the highest peak in Northern Africa; flora that included many flowering prickly pear, cedars, oleanders, plumbago, roses, junipers, apple, quince, figs, wild mint, thyme and lavender; and of course, the herds of goats and sheep with their shepherds. We passed through entire villages constructed en pisé (French for tamped clay), and topped with straw, sticks, etc. After our prepared Moroccan bag lunch, we hiked to a village where we were treated to a taste of the Moroccan hospitality we would enjoy many times during our visit – mint tea in home of a villager.
Day Two – Marrakech
Our local guide for Marrakech, adept at English and well versed in Moroccan history, began at the tallest building (71 m) in Marrakech, the Koutoubia Mosque (which will remain the tallest due to a law that restricts height for future buildings in the city); followed by a colourful day that took in visits to the Casbah fortress, replete with storks atop the towers; the Saadian tombs intricately tiled with mosaics (zellij); the Djemaa el-Fna plaza, known for snake charmers, fresh orange juice, and other food and beverage stalls; the souks, a convoluted maze of shops displaying beautiful ceramics, metal work, leather, fabric, food and more; the mullah quarter (formerJewish ghetto), recognizable by the hamsah on doors or balconies facing the street (Moroccan houses have open interior courtyards accessible by a door leading into the courtyard); enjoying mint tea during visits to a carpet souk (while learning about the different types of Moroccan carpets); and an herbalist shop (while learning about their herbal potions; the Palais Bahia with beautiful decorated walls and ceilings, the Musee de Marrakech and Koranic school.
Day Three – Ourika Valley to Setti Fatma
Ourika Valley, also at a higher altitude than Marrakech, was quite a bit cooler and nice hiking weather. This was what is called a ‘bank holiday’ (Sunday) and also their market day, so many families congregate at the riverside (sitting on chairs at tables set IN the river, eating a variety of food from the multitude of tagine/shish kebab stands set up everywhere.
Villagers come to town on donkeys with baskets to carry home their purchases, while people from nearby towns, including Marrakech, drive up for the day to enjoy relief from the heat on the river banks. The dining scene is colorful and amusing. There are Moroccans on foot or on donkeys, villagers on bicycles; visitors in cars or on motorcycles, creating a phenomenal traffic bottleneck on this two-lane road. The return-home traffic was mind boggling and I was relieved I wasn’t driving!
Day Four-Essaouria (pronounced Essa-where-uh) (170 km from Marrakech)
There’s nothing better than a trip to the coast, especially after spending several days walking and hiking in very hot (99-104) weather. The temperature was much cooler (75) than in Marrakech with a nice breeze. Our driver spoke only French, so my dictionary got a workout and I was rewarded with some interesting information. Essaouria, formerly called Mogador, is a port on the Atlantic and inside the town walls (medina), there are many souks (shops) displaying the crafts for which it is known: thuya woodworking, painting, sardines, argan oil and products, and antiques. There is a mellah here also (Jewish quarter), and many mosques. Ate lunch at Taros, a beautiful restaurant with many terraces, all decorated in blue and white with wonderful views of the sea and town.
Along the route we passed many different villages, each with a mosque and with the countryside changing after each one. There is both ancient construction (for example, fences and buildings fabricated en pisé (tamped mud) or stone and new construction (cement block covered with stucco). The terrain is very flat and the land adjacent to the road is public land owned by the state. There are farms (owned by the wealthy) of olives or argan trees or vineyards (table grapes for eating). The grapevines for table grapes here are larger with a teepee of bamboo-like poles in the middle for support. Wine grapes are grown further north near Meknes. The fruit from trees on public lands can be picked for free. Seeing goats in argan trees was quite a sight! We visited one cooperative for women where they made argan products. Women shelled, husked and culled the argan nuts and ground them into a paste with a stone mortar. Argan products are used in cooking, but are also made into skin creams and soaps, etc. The oil has a nutty smell-a little like sesame oil. Another town we passed enroute was called Chichioua-pronounced “sheesh-uh-wah.” The land is irrigated by aqueducts that carry water from the mountains.
Day Five – Tahanoute (30 miles from Marrakech) Souks and Mountain Forest Walk.
Stopped at this busy Wednesday market which had everything for the locals-vegetables, grains, spices, clothing, food prepared on grills and tagines. Stalls seemed to be put together with any available materials. Seating in restaurant souks set up in a myriad of ways – some with boards laid over rocks-a few with tables and chairs. We walked through the market to the back where the mules were tethered. It was possible to photograph food, animals or stalls without people. Moroccans generally do not like pictures taken of themselves.
Our ‘forest walk’ from Tahanoute commenced with a steady uphill climb in cool, misty weather which was great for hiking but did not afford us great views. The terrain was red ochre with slate or chert. There were many oaks, climbing white roses and cacti. We again enjoyed Moroccan hospitality (mint tea) in a small village. That evening’s dinner was on the rooftop at Riad Omar in Marrakech with some time after in the Djemaa el-Fna plaza – a carnival-type atmosphere. The family-style meal included a variety of appetizers, lamb and chicken tagines – one with couscous and one with veggies.
Day Six- Moulay Brahim and the Kik Plateau – 12 km
Were driven by car to Moulay Brahim. Undulating hike of around 12 km with many wildflowers, large beetles, and many flocks of sheep/goats under the watchful eye of their shepherd, fields of wheat, some of it hand-harvested and stacked in small bundles.
It is a common sight to see villagers stooped over cutting and bundling bunches of hay. Went through two small villages, each with their own mosque. Ate lunch in a clearing looking towards the cloud-enshrouded Jbel Toubkal (highest peak in Northern Africa). Visited by a flock of sheep and their young shepherds. Our mint-tea hospitality this day was in Asni at the home of our guide’s aunt. We were invited to enjoy our tea in a little room about 5 x 5. They are always surprised that we don’t want our tea with sugar. The higher terrain had a lot of limestone with many fossils, but as we neared the forest, the terrain changed from limestone to red earth.
Day Seven – Return to London
There was enough time before our afternoon flight to spend more time visiting the souks in Marrakech with an opportunity for lunch on the plaza and checking out the snake charmers in the square.